Bridges Over Troubled Waters:

Ivan Bulic

Gabriola Island Historical and Museum Society

Tuesday, April 1 2014

The following is a textualized version of a presentation given by Ivan Bulic for the Gabriola Island Historical and Museum Society on March 20 at the Agi Hall.

Confederation and fixed link

In 1871, Sir John A. Macdonald promised Sir Joseph Trutch, chief delegate from the Crown Colony of British Columbia, that a railway would join the West Coast to Canada within 10 years if British Columbia entered the new Canadian Confederation. Macdonald also promised that the new railway would terminate at Esquimalt on Vancouver Island.

The BC delegates agreed, and Vancouver Islanders eagerly anticipated locomotives rolling into Victoria. But the first step was to find a route through BC’s mountainous and still largely unmapped terrain. It took almost a decade for CPR surveyors to map out three possible routes.

The northern route ran west through the Skeena Valley to the North Coast. But it would not be until 1912 when the Grand Trunk Pacific would push a rail line through to what would become Prince Rupert.

The mid route ran through the steep canyons of Bute Inlet across from Seymour Narrows, north of Campbell River on Vancouver Island. This route required extensive tunnels and bridges including a long span across Seymour Narrows itself. From there the railway would run south to Victoria largely along the route of today’s Esquimalt and Nanaimo railway.

The third option was a southerly route through the Fraser Canyon and the lower Fraser Valley to tidewater at Burrard Inlet, site of today’s City of Vancouver. Despite the formidable engineering challenges in bridging Seymour Narrows, Vancouver Islanders were confident that Bute Inlet would be chosen. Anticipating economic good times as the terminus of the new railroad, Victorians invested heavily in new buildings, civic infrastructure and harbour facilities.

“Spoiled child of Confederation” 

But in 1879, Vancouver Islanders were outraged when new Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie chose the Burrard Inlet route instead. The CPR’s chief surveyor Sandford Fleming recommended the southern route. But Mackenzie was also swayed by a strong lobby from New Westminster businessmen who appreciated how much money a railroad would bring.

Victoria MP Amor de Cosmos, who had been one of the delegates who negotiated the Confederation deal, moved a motion in the House of Commons that BC secede from Confederation. Cooler heads, however, prevailed and John A. Macdonald brokered a deal with the “spoiled child of Confederation,” as he called the Pacific province.

Macdonald hoped a railway from Esquimalt to Nanaimo would placate Islanders. Although it couldn’t replace a transcontinental terminus, Islanders swallowed their pride and accepted the deal. Vancouver Island did get a link to the Mainland in the form of the CPR steamship service that for the next century linked major Island towns with the rail terminus in Vancouver. Canadian Pacific Ferries operated right into the 1970s from terminals in Nanaimo near the site of today’s Port Place Mall, and Victoria’s Inner Harbour. 

When the CPR and other private operators, such as the Black Ball Ferries, cut their money and lost runs in the 1960s, the BC government built its own ferry fleet as the marine component of a newly expanded provincial highway system with new terminals at Tsawwassen on the Mainland and Schwartz Bay on the Island. Unlike the CPR, who built their ships in Britain, BC Ferries adopted a policy of building its ships locally. 

Pender Island Bridge

But the existence of ferries doesn’t mean there were no bridges in the Gulf Islands. In 1903, the federal government dug a canal through the narrow isthmus joining North and South Pender Islands. The Pender Canal provided a convenient shortcut for small steamers. In 1955, a single lane road bridge was built, rejoining North and South Pender. To this day, it remains the only road bridge to or from any Gulf Island.

Routes across Georgia Strait

In the 1970s and 80s, interest in a fixed link from Mainland BC to Vancouver Island was revived. Various routes were proposed. One ran from Richmond across Georgia Strait to southern Valdes Island, across Gabriola Pass and along a highway, with a bridge network across Mudge Island to Nanaimo. Another route was from Richmond to Thetis Island and Chemainus. A route also ran from Richmond, but crossed Galiano and Salt Spring Islands to a terminus near Duncan. Two more routes were proposed from Delta to Galiano, Salt Spring and Duncan. Image to the right courtesy BC Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure.

One of the more interesting schemes floated in the 1990s was an all-American route from Bellingham and across the San Juan Islands to a terminal at Sidney.

Tunnels and bridges unproven

The proposals implied an equally wide variety of technologies from floating tunnels to floating bridges. The position of the BC Government at the time, and still today, is that “submerged floating tunnels to Vancouver Island would require large gravity anchors, which would be complicated given the deep, soft soil on the ocean bed. A submerged floating tunnel would be vulnerable to marine accidents and earthquake damage. A tunnel break would be catastrophic and could result in the loss of many lives. For these reasons, the existing technologies for this type of submerged floating tunnel do not make the option feasible at this time.” 

A popular option conceptualized a series of cable-stayed bridges. The tower piers would be supported on floating caissons tethered to the ocean bottom with cables and anchors, similar to an offshore oil platform. This technology, however, has not yet been applied to any fixed-bridge structure and would need considerable engineering to prove its feasibility.

Gabriola key to ferry-bridge plan

In 1972, then BC Premier WAC Bennett commissioned a study for a third BC Ferries route from a new terminal on Sea Island south of Vancouver to a terminal on southern Gabriola near Drumbeg Park or Silva Bay. From there cars would travel on a highway to bridges across False Narrows, Mudge Island and Dodd Narrows connecting to the Island Highway south of Nanaimo. 

When Bennett’s Socreds lost the 1972 provincial election to the NDP, the third ferry route was dropped. But Nanaimo MLA Dave Stupich liked the idea and claimed that 500 out of the Gabriola population of about 800 backed the plan. 

BC Liberal leader and Socred cabinet minister Pat McGeer also wanted a fixed link from the Mainland to Gabriola and Nanaimo, but he proposed an elaborate double floating tunnel. McGeer unveiled a model of his tunnels at Vancouver’s Expo’86. The tunnels were never built, but McGeer, who apparently keeps the model in the basement of his West Point Grey Vancouver home, still touts the feasibility of his plan. 

Bridge divides Gabriolans

Needless to say, plans for bridges and tunnels were supported by some Gabriolans, and opposed by others. In 1985, a Gabriola Bridge Club was formed that gained the backing of the Chamber of Commerce. They claimed “90 per cent” of Islanders wanted a bridge. 

Other Islanders formed the Gulf Islands Committee that campaigned against any fixed link under the slogan “real islands don’t have bridges.” A large number of Islanders participated in a community forum in 1987 where they largely rejected the ferry-bridge scheme. 

Since then, when issues arise with BC Ferries service such as rate hikes or schedule changes, the idea of a bridge to Gabriola and other Gulf Islands is revived, even if only as a protest or a disgruntled reaction.

Other bridges and tunnels 

Proponents of a fixed link point to existing bridges and tunnels, the best-known being the Chunnel linking Britain and continental Europe.

The Chunnel is 50 kilometres long and is bored through a hard chalk bottom in 230 metres of water. A similar tunnel under Georgia Strait would be bored under deep water and through deep sediments, creating extreme pressures during construction. The depth of both the water and the sediment would also require a tunnel over 50 kilometres in length. 

The Chunnel cost $19B, and links Britain’s 63 million people to 600 million in Europe. The Chunnel breaks even on a one-way London to Paris passenger fare of $261Cdn. 

A tunnel under Georgia Strait could cost even more, and it would only link about 700,000 people on Vancouver Island with less than 4 million on the Mainland. Current estimates doubt the capacity of the BC economy to bear the cost of a BC style “Chunnel.” There simply are not enough potential users to pay for such a project, even if the engineering challenges were overcome. 

Prince Edward Island’s $1-billion Confederation Bridge is only 12.9 kilometres long and sits in 35 metres of water on a rocky bottom. The current toll is $44.50 for a car or small truck, and $4.25 for pedestrians. No fixed bridge has yet been built long enough to span the length and depth of Georgia Strait.

The costs of a fixed link

The BC Government Transportation Planning Authority estimates that “each day, an average of 30,000 people make the ferry crossing between Vancouver and Victoria. Estimates for a fixed link (bridge) to Vancouver Island have been pegged at $12-billion - equal to about 6 per cent of provincial GDP. To pay off a bridge at that price, tolls would need to be $260 per car just to break even.” 

Sources: BC Government Transportation Planning Department and the Gabriola Historical and Museum Society Archives.